Nebraska governor stands firm on rejection of federal money to feed food-insecure children

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s Republican governor on Friday reiterated his rejection of $18 million in federal funding to help feed children who might otherwise go hungry while school is out.

Nebraska will not participate in the 2024 Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children — or Summer EBT — program, Gov. Jim Pillen said in a written statement. That statement came as advocates for children and low-income families held a news conference outside the Governor’s Mansion in Lincoln to call on Pillen to change his mind before the Jan. 1 deadline to sign up for the program.

The program — part of federal assistance made available during the COVID-19 pandemic — would provide pre-loaded EBT cards to families whose children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches at school. Those families would receive $40 per eligible child per month over the summer. The cards can be used to buy groceries, similar to how SNAP benefits are used.

Then Nebraska Governor-elect Jim Pillen answers a question while taking part in a panel discussion during a Republican Governors Association conference, Nov. 16, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

“COVID-19 is over, and Nebraska taxpayers expect that pandemic-era government relief programs will end too,” Pillen said in his statement. Pillen announced on Dec. 19 that Nebraska would not participate in the program. He has drawn a firestorm of criticism for later defending that stance at a news conference by saying, “I don’t believe in welfare.”

Neighboring Iowa is also opting out of the program, with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds announcing that decision last week and saying, “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

States that participate in the federal program are required to cover half of the administrative costs, which would cost Nebraska an estimated $300,000. Advocates of the program note that the administrative cost is far outweighed by the $18 million benefit, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates would benefit 175,000 Nebraska children who might otherwise go hungry on some days during the summer.

Advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed on Friday delivered a petition bearing more than 6,100 signatures from 230 communities across Nebraska calling on the state to utilize the federal Summer EBT program. Many of those who signed the petition also included comments expressing how much the program is needed, especially in light of multi-year inflation that has outpaced many household incomes.

“Everything is expensive,” wrote one mother from Bruno, a small rural town in eastern Nebraska. “I’m a single mom who works full time, and my budget is already spread so thin. My son plays sports, and as a growing boy, he could practically eat a hole through the wall; it feels like it never stops. The extra money for food would free up money for things like bills and savings, and car maintenance.”

Pillen insisted Friday that the state would continue to help food-insecure children through the Summer Food Service Program, which provides meals and snacks at various sites when school is not in session. Providing on-site services also allows providers to spot and report issues like malnutrition, neglect and abuse in children, he said.

But critics say not all families have access to the on-site programs — particularly in Nebraska’s vast rural stretches, where sites can be many miles away from a struggling family.

“No kid ever said, ‘I want to be born into a family that struggles,’” said Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union. “Why would we even question that people and children deserve food?”

Preston Love Jr,, a longtime community advocate in Omaha, on Friday questioned whether Pillen was bowing to political pressure in rejecting the federal funding.

“I know the governor a little bit, and he seems to be a reasonable man. He’s a man who is compassionate in conversation,” Love said. “This is out of character. So, obviously, he’s not following his heart. He’s following his politics. He’s falling victim to political posturing, and there’s no excuse for that when it comes to children.”

As of Friday, 28 other states and six other U.S. territories and Native American tribes had confirmed their participation, according to the USDA.

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Nebraska’s Republican governor, Jim Pillen, has rejected $18 million in federal funding for the 2024 Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (Summer EBT) program. This program would provide pre-loaded EBT cards to families with children eligible for free and reduced-price lunches at school, giving them $40 per child per month to buy groceries over the summer. Pillen defended his decision by claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic is over and that he doesn’t believe in welfare. Advocates for the program argue that its $18 million benefit far outweighs the estimated $300,000 cost to Nebraska. An advocacy group delivered a petition with over 6,100 signatures to the state, calling for the use of the federal program, with comments emphasizing the program’s importance given the rising cost of living. Critics argue that the Summer Food Service Program, which Pillen has cited as an alternative, is not accessible to all families, particularly those in rural areas. They argue that it is unfair to deny food-insecure children assistance with food, and some speculate that Pillen’s decision is politically motivated. As of Friday, 28 other states and six other U.S. territories and Native American tribes had confirmed their participation in the Summer EBT program.

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